They were striking persons, which is why I remember meeting Miguel Cabrera on June 27, 2003, the day of his fourth game in the big leagues, and Grady Sizemore less than two weeks later, at the Futures Game at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. They were each 20 years old, but they were very different from 20-year-olds.
There was a pleasant self-assuredness about Cabrera, who played a couple of games in the outfield in Double-A and was rushed up to a pennant contender as a third baseman-turned-outfielder. He had spent two or three games in the Minors preparing for the position switch and elevation to the Marlins, and when asked about it on the stage of Fenway Park, he simply shrugged. "No problem," he said, smiling.
That night, Boston scored 10 runs before Florida recorded an out. Four months later, Cabrera was in the World Series, and the first time he faced Roger Clemens he was knocked down, got up and hammered a three-run homer to right-center. Indeed, he was different.
At first meeting, Sizemore was clearly different as well. He was shy, yet firm, his eyes never left his conversation partner, star presence without a star persona. Indians general manager Mark Shapiro had promised that when I met him, I'd get it. He was right. Sizemore was playing in Double-A Akron at the time, and wouldn't be in Cleveland for another year, but he was clearly one of those guys who come along so rarely.
Much has passed in the seven years since then. Cabrera won a World Series ring in that first year. He was traded to Detroit after the 2007 season, as the Marlins shifted payroll in preparation for getting a new ballpark, and moved to first base. Yet in a sport in which the marquee players at his position are Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira, Justin Morneau, Kevin Youklis and Prince Fielder, he has played in relative obscurity.
"Cabrera's a great player," says Jim Leyland, who has managed a few players in his time. "Barry Bonds is the best player I've ever managed, no doubt about it. But the next-best player I've ever had is Cabrera. I was thinking about that the other day, and it's simple. Bonds is the best, then Miguel Cabrera. He's a great hitter; he's become a very good first baseman. If he ever learns to not give away the occasional at-bat, he'll be as good as anyone."
This is a guy who turned 27 on April 18. At 25, he led the American League in homers with 37, in Comerica Park. Beginning with his first full season in 2004, he had hit 33, 33, 26, 34, 37 and 34 homers. He has averaged 115 RBIs. He missed 19 games in six seasons. From 2005-09, ages 22 through 26, he batted under .300 once -- .292 the year he led the league in homers.
It may be that what's hurt his public perception have been whispers about his off-field life. Stories surfaced in Florida, yet Joe Girardi always staunchly defended him.
"I know the stories," Girardi says, "but I loved Miggy. He was there to play every day, he played hard, he worked hard. Contrary to some rumors, he was never a problem. He was just a kid who is a great player."
Then came the incident in September during the Tigers' playoff race, when Cabrera went out with some of the White Sox, ended up in a Detroit jail and didn't play that afternoon game against one of Detroit's most important rivals.
"He messed up. He knows it," Leyland says. "He admitted it."
When the Tigers went on their caravan this winter, Cabrera met with the media and openly addressed his mistake. He talked about getting counseling and changing his lifestyle.
"It's something I wanted to do and had to do," Cabrera said in Spring Training. "I feel much better about myself."
And so he is there, every day, leading the American League in RBIs. He is hitting .331 with 10 homers, is third in OPS, second in intentional walks and has only two more strikeouts than walks. He addressed what he needed to address, and he is the Tigers' anchor. At 27.
Cabrera and Sizemore seemed to be two trains running on parallel tracks to Cooperstown. They were different, obviously. Cabrera is 6-foot-4, 240 pounds and a first baseman. Sizemore is 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, a great high school quarterback who runs, hits, defends and plays like Pete Rose, Pete Reiser and Darin Erstad. This week, Sizemore is getting two and perhaps three more opinions for the injury he recently suffered to his left knee. Diving back into the first-base bag, he severely damaged his kneecap, and there is question precisely what is the extent of the damage. If, as some fear, there is serious cartilage damage, Sizemore could be out for the season, this after a star-crossed 2009 in which he was limited to 109 games and ended up having operations on his left elbow and for a hernia.
The question some have asked is whether Sizemore is another Erstad, a guy who crashed into walls, continually dove into the ground and accelerated into bases and sacrificed his body -- and some of his career -- because of his intense passion. Go back from 2009 and '10, when he's played hurt and hit .248 and .211.
This is a guy who from 2005-08 -- when he turned 26 on Aug. 2 -- was one of the premier players in the game. He averaged 24 homers, 116 runs and 28 steals. He won two Gold Gloves. He played every game in '06 and '07, and in that four-year period missed a total of nine games, playing fearlessly and recklessly. In '08, he was asked if he ever thought about the toll his playing style might take on his body, and he just stared.
"Never thought about it," he answered. "That's the only way I know how to play."
Sizemore never worries about anything but the playing. Someone speculated that he might be upset that so many players had passed his contract, and then-manger Eric Wedge said, "Grady has no idea what he makes, let alone anyone else. He doesn't worry about money."
Sizemore's agent, Joe Urbon, believes last season's injuries were freaks. Doctors believed his unusual throwing motion led to the elbow problems. A hernia is a hernia.
But back in April, Sizemore hurt that left knee diving back into second base. Doctors assured him that there was no structural damage, so Grady went right back to flying around center field. He didn't complain that he wasn't at full strength when the season opened and that the knee was bothering him. He thus was hitting .211 with 35 strikeouts and nine walks in 33 games.
"Maybe," Urbon says, "if Grady weren't who he is, he would have been more cautious, and there would have been more attention given to the knee. I do know this -- when he finds out what this current injury is, I've told his parents that I will lock him in his house until he's completely healthy."
This is supposed to be Grady Sizemore's prime, and now he is faced with having two injury-wrecked seasons. It typifies the plight of the Indians, who may be without two of their three best players -- Sizemore and Astrubal Cabrera -- for much of the season.
It also robs the sport of one of its best players and models for the way it should be played every day. Cabrera is precisely what he seemed that 2003 afternoon, a career .312 hitter on track for 500 home runs, mentioned by Leyland in the same sentence Bonds.
So was Sizemore, was. We all hope that he is not the victim of his playing style, of caring too much and never backing away from any wall, and that the knee will repair and he will go back to being the Sports Illustrated cover boy. Because he, too, is precisely the person and the player he appeared to be the afternoon of that 2003 Futures Game.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.